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Military Social Work: My Journey to the Field and 20-Year Career

 |  10 Min Read

By Dr. Chris Flaherty, US Air Force Major, and Clinical Social Work Officer

Joining the Service

I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1985 and wasn’t necessarily tracking toward behavioral health at the time; psychology and sociology were always interests of mine, though. In the military, you don’t always get the job you want, but you can ask for it, at least. So I was going through the extensive catalog of all potential positions when I came across a description of a mental health technician.

The job was an assistant to social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists and, in that setting, was a paraprofessional. I said, “That sounds fun.” So, after basic training in San Antonio, I returned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. I completed four months of behavioral health technician training, and then I was off to work at the hospital at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

The appearance of the US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

First Military Job

For my first seven years, I worked as a technician, serving alongside military social work officers, psychologists, psychiatrists, other technicians, and drug and alcohol specialists. This meant I got a sampling of what was involved in those professions. Along the way, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work degree, and the Air Force sent me to school at the University of Southern Colorado (now named Colorado State, Pueblo).

Undergraduate and Graduate Social Work Studies

The more I learned about social work, the more I saw it as a good fit for myself. I loved the emphasis on not just helping individuals adapt to their environments but also improving climates to make them more conducive to promoting mental health by developing supportive policies, practices, and systems.

My level of interest kept growing as I learned more about it. So, after completing my BSW program and graduating in 1990, I earned my Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from the University of Denver, which I received in 1992. And while I was on active duty, I then applied for a commission as a social work officer and was accepted; that was my path from enlisting to landing my first social work job.

Serving as a Military Social Work Officer

It was the early ’90s when I became an officer, and the system was a little different than it is now. I was green, fresh out of my MSW program, and I was sent to oversee a family violence program for an entire base in a very remote part of the US, with several staff under my supervision.

There were numerous social issues there, including a lot of family violence and alcohol abuse. It was also a place where gambling was legal, so many troops were getting into financial trouble. The Air Force sent me there as a new lieutenant and said, “Here’s your staff, and here are a handful of abuse cases that have come in this morning.” So, I’d say it was a “deep-end” experience.

There was a significant amount that I had to learn the hard way; it was a tough, exceedingly stressful job with lots of long hours. Fortunately, I had outstanding team members and great, supportive supervisors who got me through it.

What helped me immensely was my seven years of experience as a mental health technician working in a similar setting, though the Air Force Academy was mellow compared to this base. But, at least I knew the ropes, terminology, military behavioral health, and its roles and functions.

I became the family advocacy officer, which meant that the buck stopped with me for all domestic violence and child maltreatment on the base. I had assisted military social workers who were family advocacy officers when I was a medical technician. Hence, acculturation in my enlisted time made the transition much easier than it would have been, having just been recruited from civilian life.

The combination of that experience and my time as an advocacy officer on that base also served me well when I enrolled in the doctorate program at the University of Tennessee. I earned my Ph.D. there in 2001 while still serving in the Air Force.

Life in the Armed Forces

One of the common challenges in military life is that you can’t put down roots too deeply. Don’t unpack all of your bags because you’re going to move again. And that’s what I tell our students who are considering military careers. If you want to live by grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles for the rest of your life, don’t go into the military — they’re not going to let you do that. But if you have an adventurous spirit and like to see new places and don’t mind moving every few years, it can be exciting and fun; it will provide you with unique opportunities and experiences.

That’s just part of life in the armed forces, whether you’re a military social worker or operating in any other role. That disruption can impose significant challenges on family members, especially children who must change schools every few years, say goodbye to their friends, and start over. And my experience was before social media, too, so I saw my daughter say goodbye to her friends, and they’d try to stay in touch with letters; back then, long-distance phone calls cost money, so you could only do so much.

I never went overseas, though I have many colleagues and friends who traveled to Germany and Japan to experience different cultures. That was enriching for their children in some ways, but it was a big challenge.

In the military, for most jobs, there’s a defined workday called the duty day, but that’s just a suggestion; the day ends when the work is done. So, depending on where a person is, they could have some long hours and maybe a lot of on-call work. Other assignments, though, are cushier: After leaving that high-stress base, I went to a warm, sunny place on the beach, where the workday was never more than eight hours, and I was never on call. So, there can be a lot of variation depending on where you end up. Usually, people assigned overseas tend to work harder — they often have more extended hours because some places don’t have enough staff to do everything that needs to be done well.

The Brotherhood of the Military

One of the things I miss and appreciate about the military is the camaraderie, which was unlike that of other places of work. There’s a certain amount of teamwork in other settings. Still, it’s different in the military in that it’s not just the behavioral health team — it’s the whole unit, the full group, the entire installation pulling together.

We went through significant wartime readiness assessments, for example, during which we had to simulate war games so that we could be evaluated on our skills. Everybody worked hard and put in long hours and then when we succeeded and passed, everybody celebrated together. There was that all-around dedication to the mission as one team. I would tell myself, “Okay, this is hard and stressful, but we’re all in it together.”

Learning How to Juggle Competing Loyalties

In the military, in some ways, you’re serving two masters: You’re working for the system, for the command, but then you’re also working for your client. So, a lot of negotiation happens — even mental negotiation with yourself in certain circumstances, as you think, “How do I balance serving the interest of my client and also serving the needs of the mission?”

Especially outside of the medical system, teams are constantly told that the mission comes first, and that’s true. But say, for instance, you have a troop with some mental health issues. Maybe they’re not fit for the duties they’re assigned at the moment, but they have the potential to resolve some of these problems and function well again. You have to determine how hard and for how long you should try to save and rehabilitate these persons, and when you should decide that they’re a liability to the mission, may put others at risk, and thus can’t serve in that role anymore.

So, sometimes it’s a fine line in terms of how much you advocate for your client and how much you focus on the needs of the mission and the well-being of the overall group, rather than just one individual. So, it’s always kind of a dance. And in some instances, it’s clear that a person shouldn’t have been brought into the military in the first place, and you find a way to help them exit as smoothly as possible. But other times, you have to get into a little tug-of-war with the command to advocate for your clients and say, “I think this person can recover and return to functioning. They need this kind of chance and this kind of help.”

The Benefit of Conferring with Your Comrades

I also learned much about the importance of consultation with peers — not just fellow military social workers but other behavioral health officers. It was beneficial to sit down and say, “Here’s how I’m seeing this case, but I’m torn between these two sides of the coin,” and talk that through with experienced folks who have been there and done that for a long time.

Getting different perspectives can help clarify your decision-making and make you feel less isolated in that process. And that’s the medical model of the case management teams: maybe you don’t know what to do, but if you talk it through with enough trusted, experienced folks, they can help you make the best decision.

Passing on What You’ve Learned

Throughout my career, I have been passionate about my work, and it’s been gratifying to see its positive impact on active-duty service members, veterans, and their families. The military gave me a lot, so I want to keep giving back as much as possible, which is why I was inspired to go into academia after retiring from the Air Force. I see what our troops endure, especially our young folks in combat zones, so I want to do all I can to improve their experience and wellness and help them thrive.

As an associate professor and director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Lab at the UK College of Social Work, I can use my experience to guide students in becoming military social workers. I also have the privilege of collaborating directly with the Army through our partnership to ensure our students are fully prepared with the knowledge and skills they need to serve our brave men and women in uniform. It’s the perfect second act of my career.

For more on UK’s military social work program and partnership with the US Army, read this detailed Q&A with Dr. Flaherty.

Explore the University of Kentucky’s Online BSW, MSW, DSW, Support for Military, or their Military Behavioral Health Lab. In addition, the UK College of Social Work offers great educational tracks for military and veteran social workers and civilians who want to help service members.

To get in touch with an admissions counselor about UK’s military social work programs, fill out this form or call 1-833-358-1721.

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